So what does a SF movie need to do and how can it do it on a lower budget? John Scalzi took a crack at it recently and came up with three ways to cut costs. His first one is dead on:
1. Ditch the StarsOr approximately $28 million more than it took to make all of Primer (which cost $7,000). Now, I'll grant that Primer isn't the most visually spectacular movie, nor is its complex plotting very clear upon first inspection, but it is still very interesting and engaging (at least as much if not more than I, Robot).
So how much does Will Smith get paid to make a movie these days? Well, $28 million for I, Robot -- or a quarter of that film's $105 million production budget (or $3 million more than all of Cloverfield).
Scalzi's next point is to avoid making it in Hollywood. A pretty good suggestion. It partially amounts to the same thing as his first suggestion (since one of the things a big studio will do is insist on a big name star), but it also means they'll suggest more special effects and cliched plot elements. Why? Because Hollywood has lots of money, and they want to spend it. David Foster Wallace once wrote about this sort of thing in an essay called F/X Porn. In it, he formulates what's call the Inverse Cost and Quality Law:
...it states very simply that the larger a movie's budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be. The case of "T2" shows that much of the ICQL's force derives from simple financial logic. A film that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make is going to get financial backing if and only if its investors can be maximally -- _maximally_ -- sure that at the very least they will get their hundreds of millions of dollars back  -- i.e. a megabudget movie must not fail (and "failure" here means anything less than a runaway box-office hit) and must thus adhere to certain reliable formulae that have been shown by precedent to maximally ensure a runaway hit. One of the most reliable of these formulae involves casting a superstar who is "bankable" (i.e. whose recent track record of films shows a high ROI). The studio backing for "T2'''s wildly sophisticated and digital F/X therefore depends on Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to reprise his Terminator role. Now the ironies start to stack, though, because it turns out that Schwarzenegger -- or perhaps more accurately "Schwarzenegger, Inc.," or "Ahnodyne" -- has decided that playing any more malevolent cyborgs would compromise the Leading Man image his elite and bankable record of ROI entails. He will do the film only if "T2"'s script is somehow engineered to make the Terminator the Good Guy. Not only is this vain and stupid and shockingly ungrateful , it is also common popular knowledge, duly reported in both the trade and the popular entertainment media before "T2" even goes into production. There's consequently a weird postmodern tension to the way we watch the film; we're aware of what the bankable star's demands were, and we're also aware of how much the movie cost and how important bankable stars are to a big-budget movie; and so one of the few things that keeps us on the edge of our seats during the movie is our suspense about whether James Cameron can possibly weave a plausible, non-cheesy narrative that meets Schwarzenegger's career needs without betraying "T1"'s precedent.So I think Scalzi's second point holds pretty well, even though he didn't quite ram it home by savaging a popular but not so great film like Wallace does with T2 (his essay is worth reading in its entirety)
... Cameron's premise also permits the emotional center of "T2" to consist of the child and the Terminator "bonding," which in turn allows for all manner of familiar and reliable devices. Thus it is that "T2" offers us cliche explorations of stuff like the conflicts between Emotion and Logic (territory already mined to exhaustion by "Star Trek") and between Human and Machine (turf that's been worked in everything from "Lost in Space" to "Blade Runner" to "Robocop"), as well as exploiting the good old Alien - or - Robot - Learns - About - Human - Customs - and - Psychology - From - Sarcastic - and/or - Precocious - but - Basically - Goodhearted - Human - with - Whom - It - Bonds formula (q.q.v. here "My Favorite Martian" and "E.T." and "Starman" and "The Brother From Another Planet" and "Harry and the Hendersons" and "Alf" and ad almost infinitum).
And Scalzi's final point is also probably his most controversial and I'm not sure I buy it:
3. Hire the Screenwriter to DirectI certainly buy his reasoning, but I'm not sure that's going to matter. Being good at putting together a script says nothing of your abilities behind the camera. If you're going to spend your money on something, it might as well be the director. Directors typically make 5-7% of a film's budget, and since we're talking about a low budget movie, that won't account for all that much. Plus, a good director generally has more of a tangible outcome on the success of a film than a popular, A-List actor (note that I didn't say "good" actor, though I think a director probably still wields more influence even in that case). Scalzi doesn't really expand on this one that much, but he does give an interesting caveat and example:
The screenwriter is used to having his work brutally slaughtered by other filmmakers, so when he gets a chance to step up to the director's chair, he's going to do everything he can to make it work, no matter what.
Warning, however: This is highly contingent on the two other factors. Case in point: David Twohy. When all Twohy had was $23 million, no big stars and a distribution deal with mini-studio USA Films, he made Pitch Black. When he had $120 million, big stars and Universal Studios backing him, he made The Chronicles of Riddick. Lesson: There's something to be said about keeping your screenwriter/director pinching pennies.Indeed there is, and that's a point Wallace drives home in his essay with a corollary to his Inverse Cost and Quality Law:
(ICQL (b)) There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources.Of course, despite focusing on T2 (a science fiction movie), Wallace isn't specifically talking about SF movies, and a lot of the advice in this post could probably stand for most movies.
I guess the good news is that low budget SF movies are getting made. The previously mentioned Cloverfield is an interesting example of a movie that looks great, but was made for only $25 million dollars. It's not a great film, but it does something interesting and new to the moster movie genre (though I guess it's only marginally SF). Another great example I saw this year was at the Philly Film Festival - a Spanish time-travel thriller called Timecrimes. It's a fantastic example of how a SF movie can look great and entertain, even on a small budget (though I'm sure significantly higher than Primer). A few more like this and we'll be in decent shape.